Analysts say China is using its rapidly expanding defense budget to make impressive advances in drone technology, prompting some to worry that the United States' global dominance in the market could soon be challenged.
At a recent biennial airshow
in the southern coastal city of Zhuhai, China unveiled a new generation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Long-time observers of Chinese military capability reported the drones on display were bigger and more sophisticated than in the past.
Though many of the prototypes and models on display at the Zhuhai air show did not have explicit military purposes, others appeared to be clones of U.S. drones, such as the Predator or Reaper, which have both been used in deadly missions on suspected militants.
There is no evidence suggesting China plans to use its drones in a similar manner as the United States, and observers say Beijing is still likely far behind Washington in drone technology.
US Defense Report Calls China's drone advances "alarming"
But a report published in July by the Defense Science Board, a committee that advises the U.S. Defense Department, suggested that Beijing's ramped up spending and research on drones could threaten U.S. supremacy in the sector.
The unclassified report called China's recent focus on UAVs "alarming," warning Beijing could "easily match or outpace U.S. spending on unmanned systems, rapidly close the technology gaps and become a formidable global competitor in unmanned systems."
Richard Bitzinger, an ex-CIA analyst and senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, says he dismisses parts of that report as being "melodramatic."
"There's certainly cause for concern and for watchfulness. But how could the Chinese outspend the United States on drones? I just don't see it," he said. "The United States has literally thousands of drones."
How has China used drones?
Bitzinger says it is difficult to determine how China, or any other country, uses drones, partly because of their often-times covert nature. He says drone programs with obvious military purposes are often disguised as only having humanitarian roles, such as disaster relief, counter-piracy or crime-fighting.
"Kind of all these warm fuzzies, these kind of 'mom-and-apple-pie,' benign things that you can say 'That's what we're building the drones for, and oh, by the way, we have a military purpose for them, as well," said Bitzinger. "When I hear all the kind of uplifting and peaceful-sounding kind of things [about drones], I think 'So what. They can be converted in a matter of hours, if not sooner, into an offensive, or at least an explicitly military, capability.'"
For China, state media said those reportedly peaceful missions include patrolling maritime regions. In September, the Xinhua news agency reported that China's State Oceanic Administration would step up the use of drones to "strengthen marine surveillance" in disputed areas of the South China Sea. A government report earlier this year called for 11 drone bases to be established along China's coastline by 2015.
But other missions were seemingly more mundane. The state-run Global Times
reported in June that Beijing police is using a drone to spot illegal opium poppies in rural areas of the capital. Last year, the paper said the department would also use unmanned aircraft to "monitor traffic accidents, conduct aerial surveillance, or help with rescue operations."
So far there are no known instances of China carrying out deadly attacks with weaponized UAVs. But Li Yidong, a designer for the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, told the Global Times
that one of the UAVs on display at the Zhuhai air show appears to have carried out 20 missions and fired 15 missiles, judging from the number of red stars and missile patterns on the drone.
At the Zhuhai air show, Huang Wei, the director of a drone program at the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation told the Global Times
that UAVs were, "as the Americans say," fit for missions that are "dirty, dangerous and dull."
Possible deadly missions in the future?
Bitzinger warns that if Beijing did decide to use drones for explicitly offensive missions, such as targeting suspected militants, it would likely draw on the experience of the U.S. military, which has used the highly effective unmanned planes to target militants in countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen.
"The United States is basically field-testing the whole idea of drone warfare," said Bitzinger. "Armed hunter-killer drones have been going very well for the United States. And people walk away with this as a lesson. One of the lessons is, "Gee, it would sure be nice to have one of those things."
Wendell Minnick, Asia bureau chief at Defense News, says there is no evidence to suggest that China desires to carry out deadly drone strikes. But he says that if it did, it would likely point to U.S. drone use as justification.
"There's certainly an argument to be made that if the U.S. can make the same type of judgment call and justification for hitting militants in Pakistan, what's to stop the Chinese from hitting Tibetan or Uighur rebel groups that are technically within China's own sovereign country?" he asks.
The danger of Chinese drone exports
Another area of concern for the United States is that China will increasingly export its relatively inexpensive drone technology to nations around the world. That fear was heightened when the Global Times
said in November that "some foreign sales" were reported at the Zhuhai air show.
Minnick says that Chinese drones, many of which are specifically produced for the export market, are very attractive for nations that cannot afford or are otherwise prevented from purchasing the U.S. alternatives.
"Our drone exports are very expensive platforms, very sophisticated. The Chinese produce a much cheaper variety that basically does the same job," said Minnick. "The Chinese have got cheap labor, technological know-how, and are looking at an export market that's growing."
But Bitzinger says price is only one factor that nations consider when purchasing foreign military equipment. He warns Beijing will not likely become the "Wal-Mart" of international drone sales anytime soon.
"I'm sure they'd like to be, but the question is, do you want to buy Chinese equipment?" asks Bitzinger. "The reliability, the maintenance of these things is still unproven, and there's a lot of political baggage that comes with buying Chinese [products]."
Bitzinger also says Chinese exports of drones may be limited by international arms sales regulations that govern exports of weapons and "dual-use" goods that have both civilian and military purposes.
Still, Bitzinger and other analysts warn against being dismissive of Chinese drone capability.
"I think at this point, they're still very much in that developmental, exploratory phase," he said. "That aside, I don't see them getting out of the business. I think they'll continue to work on it and get better."